Psalm 79: Bargaining with God

Theologian Walter Brueggemann divides the psalms into three categories: psalms of orientation, disorientation and re-orientation. This week’s psalm, Psalm 79, is a psalm of disorientation. It is a communal lament. The temple has been defiled, Jerusalem assaulted and dead bodies strewn across the landscape.

“O God, the heathen have come into your inheritance; they have defied your holy temple; they have laid Jerusalem in ruins. They have given the bodies of your servants to the birds of the air for food, the flesh of your saints to the beasts of the earth. They have poured out their blood like water round about Jerusalem and there was none to bury them.” (1-3)

They are now the subject of scorn and derision by the neighboring nations, “We have become a taunt to our neighbors, mocked and derided by those round about us.” (4) They believe God was angry at his people, “How long, O Lord? Will you be angry for ever? Will your jealous wrath burn like fire?” (5) They ask God to turn that wrath against non-believers, if not for their sake, then for himself. “Why should nations say, ‘Where is their God?’” (10a) The implication is that the destruction of Jerusalem is a black mark on God and all who believe in him.

They ask God to return to their neighbors all that had been done to them and more, “Return sevenfold into the bosom of our neighbors the taunts with which they have taunted you, O Lord!” (12) Then they will praise God, “Then we your people, the flock of your pasture, will give thanks to you for ever; from generation to generation we will recount your praise.” (12)

For those familiar with Kubler-Ross’s stages of dying, you might say the Israelites have passed through the initial stage of shock and denial, through anger to bargaining. They are seeking to bargain with God, saying if you do this, we will do that. In doing so, they are resisting feeling the full depth of their loss, which is tremendous, and not moving forward to acceptance for that would mean a new understanding of God and who God is for his people. They are clinging to the image of God, all powerful King, who protects his people and rights wrongs. They are also clinging to the image of an angry God who punishes his people. They don’t want to give up their image of God to embrace a new image.

As mentioned, this is a psalm of disorientation. The people are lost and confused because of the defilement of the temple. They are trying to make sense of it all so they figure that God must have been angry with them; that they must have done something to warrant this destruction and thus there is something they can do to placate God.

They want the old order restored. Rather than embrace change they are clinging to an image of God that no longer works. They are avoiding the pain of depression and all of the feelings associated with their loss. They mistakenly think they can bargain with God to get what they want.

Sometimes in order to grow spiritually, we are pushed into crisis and disorientation. In order to mature in faith, we need to let go of childhood images of God that no longer work and embrace new images. We may not like this and may resist, trying to bargain for ways to keep our old familiar image, but if we are to grow spiritually, we need to move beyond outdated images. If the Hebrew people are to grow as a nation under God, they will need to let go of their former understanding of God for a new understanding.

Sometimes God throws us into times of disorientation because God wants us to grow in our understanding of him. But God never abandons us during those times; he walks alongside us.

How have periods of disorientation helped you grow?

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